Decoding sign language legal status: exploring a distinct category (or tertium genus) between recognition and officiality

A comparative analysis


  • Filipe Venade de Sousa Lisbon School of the Faculty of Law of the Catholic University of Portugal & School of Education – Polytechnic University of Porto


Sign language; Official language; recognised languages; tertium genus; Legal typology.


In various countries, languages that qualify as “recognised languages” are enshrined in their respective legal frameworks. This designation remains abstract and indeterminate, making it a challenge to precisely define the official status of such recognised languages, particularly in the case of sign languages. The analysis of various legislation related to sign languages highlights commonalities in the formulation of national laws in how they uphold fundamental principles. Sign languages may or may not benefit from features of linguistic officiality, both formally and materially, compared to officially proclaimed spoken languages. Additionally, sign languages align with distinctive elements of linguistic minority rights. In other words, they are not clearly qualified as genuine official languages, like spoken languages, and simultaneously, are not expressly considered minority languages, despite some analogies. It is argued that it is feasible to develop a legal theory called asymmetric linguistic officiality of sign language. Regarding the legal statuses of sign languages, treating them as a third legal category of linguistic officiality in an intersectional sense or, better yet, addressing them as a tertium genus that specifies issues inherent to sign languages based on legal circumstances related to the rights of deaf people.